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Penance

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Waking up is a violent sort of thing for Gabriel.  First of all, he’s fairly certain that he’s never slept and, therefore, never had to return to consciousness.  It’s a little terrifying, disorienting and quick.  But he opens his eyes for only a second before he is struck with how very hurt he is.  It’s then he remembers that he shouldn’t even be awake.  Panic flares through his system, lighting up in his grace like a signal flare, making him gasp when he feels all the internal tears, his light ripped and fraying at the edges.  He should be dead.  He had planned to die.  Despite the horrible burning in his stomach, he takes another heaving breath, trying to fight his way back to full consciousness.

“Hush,” says a voice to his right, and he stills.  Whoever it is, they sound weary and unthreatening, a soft melodic tone to the voice that tickles Gabriel’s memory and awakens images of Heaven, peaceful and comforting.  Then there’s a hand on him, warm and large, and he feels the slow bleed of another’s angelic power into his skin, relieving his pain and stitching together a few of the smaller rips in his grace.  He accepts the feeling for a moment, pure the respite clouding his better judgment, before the images of Heaven suddenly distort into images of war, and Gabriel knows who is beside him.

“Michael?” he asks in confusion.  His eyes open, darting around to take in his surroundings.  He’s on a bed, he thinks, but what’s beyond the bed is shrouded in darkness and he cannot see past the other angel into the room.  For a moment, he’s horrified that Michael has taken him back to Heaven.

“Gabriel,” Michael replies, drawing Gabriel’s eyes back to him.  He sounds strangely relieved, his eyes uncharacteristically filled with emotion.  “You’re conscious.”

“Where am I?” he demands, trying to pull his elbows up underneath him.  It’s a movement he instantly regrets, pain ripping through his chest and down his extremities.  His shoulders spasm as his instinctive urge to curl protectively around his wound kicks in, the memory of Lucifer’s blade in his stomach flashing back into his mind.  The moment he starts to hunch over, however, Michael’s hand is on his shoulder, forcing him back down.  He opens his mouth to moan in agony, but then Michael’s fingers are on his temple and the other angel’s grace pulses relief throughout his entire body.  He embarrasses himself by trying to cling to the feeling, that grace so familiar and warm and comforting, and his own grace reaches out and tries to wind around it, keeping it close.  He can feel how reluctant Michael is to pull away, and in the end it’s Gabriel who has to yank back completely.

“Don’t move,” Michael orders.  He sounds exhausted and maybe even a little scared, so Gabriel can’t muster up the energy to tell his older brother that he is not under his command anymore.  It would be childish, anyway, and, judging from the ache just under his ribcage, he decides it’s probably in his best interest to stay still.

“Where am I?” he repeats.  He doesn’t know what he’ll do if Michael dragged him back home.  The soldier in him, the one that just won’t die, rapidly starts assessing the situation; where the exits are, how injured he is, what he can do to escape.  The options begin to dissolve before his eyes.

“You’re not in Heaven,” Michael tells him, sounding only a little bitter.  “Where we are is not important.”

“Michael,” Gabriel growls.

“You’re safe, little brother.  That’s what matters.”

“Don’t tell me what matters,” Gabriel snaps pointlessly, not even entirely sure what he means.  It’s an old pattern – one of them will say something, the other will argue for the sake of arguing, and they’ll leave each other to stew in anger they’ve mostly invented in their minds.  Gabriel groans, not entirely out of physical pain, and adds, “Where the heck is the exit in this place?”

“I can’t let you leave,” Michael says.  He always spoke that way.  It was always can’t, but never won’t.  “You need to rest.  I’ll stay with you until you’re properly healed.”

“You’re no healer.”

“No,” Michael admits.  “But I’m all you’ve got right now.”  He runs his fingers down the side of Gabriel’s face, eyes warm.  “So shut up.”

The fastest he heals, the faster he can run back to Earth and resume his strict diet of candy and isolation, and so he quiets, allowing Michael to work and allowing himself some rest.

“Your vessel is beautiful,” Michael tells him absentmindedly, running his fingers through Gabriel’s hair.

“Right back at you, John Winchester,” Gabriel sighs, torn between batting the other archangel’s hand away and leaning into the recognizable touch.  “Which timeline did you completely screw over by taking him?”

“It’s just a copy,” Michael admits.

“It’s a damn good one,” Gabriel says despite himself, resisting the urge to entwine their fingers or place a kiss on Michael’s palm.  The touches are so natural and it’s been so long since Gabriel could reach out his grace and feel Michael’s so close, so warm and so affectionate, and he aches for more.  Only thoughts of the other archangels ever remind him how lonely separation from heaven feels, how there is, in fact, a downside to being a friendless angel wandering the earth separated from the presence of others.

“How long has it been since you were in your true form?” Michael asks, tucking a few strands behind Gabriel’s ear.  He frowns when Gabriel just closes his eyes and doesn’t answer, but doesn’t comment on the silence, trailing the backs of his fingers down the other’s cheek.  “You were so beautiful in Heaven.  I used to think our father created you to distract the rest of us from our bickering.”

“A lot of good it did,” Gabriel mutters, even as his heart swells in surprised flattery.  Michael had always been the most radiant to him.  Not even his bitter resentment had managed to distort his memory of Michael’s brilliance, God’s oldest and most powerful archangel.  Gabriel had preened under any and all attention he received from the other archangel, but he never suspected that Michael had such grand notions about him.

“I always thought you were beautiful,” Michael says defensively, sensing the younger angel’s shock.  “Lucifer would tease me about the way I looked at you.  When you were first brought to us, I told him you’d been made for me and only I was allowed to talk to you.  He believed me for three days.”

“And here I thought he didn’t like me at first,” Gabriel says with a weak chuckle, feeling more like crying at the mention of their youth and the time when they were happy.  It’s a time he’ll never see again.

“Michael,” he finally says.  “Lucifer was going to kill me.  You saved me.”

Michael hesitates.  “Yes.”

“Why?”

Michael’s surprise is palpable.  “Why?” he repeats incredulously.

“Why not let him kill me?  You know I don’t want to be conscious when you and Lucifer rip each other to shreds.”  He shakes his head.  “I’ll have to feel both of you flicker out and die.  You think I want that?”

Michael rises from the bed to kneel in front of him and Gabriel looks away angrily, feeling petulant and childish, but Michael, forever patient with him and only with him, touches his cheek and turns his face back to him.  Gabriel tries to glare at him, tries to hate him like he told Lucifer he does, but Michael’s eyes look so lost and scared and Gabriel feels his own façade break.  Michael’s thrumming grace is just so familiar and Gabriel wants to fall into him and curl up, safe and warm and loved, the way he used to in their youth.

 “I felt that something was going to take you away from me, Gabriel,” Michael tells him quietly.  “And I wasn’t about to let that happen.  Not again.”

“Nothing took me away from you the first time,” Gabriel says reluctantly.  “You pushed me out and you know it.”

“It was your choice to leave,” Michael argues.

“It was your choice to throw our brother into the pits of Hell,” the younger archangel counters.

“It wasn’t my choice,” Michael insists.  “Our Father commanded it.  What would you have had me do, Gabriel?”

“Anything,” Gabriel snaps.  “Anything other than what you did.”

“You were too young to understand,” Michael sighs regretfully, as if he should have been the one to educate Gabriel.  He’s as infuriating patronizing as always and Gabriel bristles.

“This was never about me being the baby or me not understanding your responsibilities!” Gabriel tells him, forcing himself up on his elbow and ignoring the resulting ache.  “When I was moments old, Dad handed me a trumpet and told me to drop down to Earth and say, ‘Hey, mankind!  Show’s over!’  So don’t preach to me about your responsibilities!”

It’s the conversation Gabriel hoped they’d never have to have, but his anger clouds his need for emotional self-preservation.

“It was never about Dad or responsibility or any of that semantic bullshit.  It was about us – you, me, Lucifer, and Raphael – and the fact that the rest of you were so willing to just throw it all away.  Like we were just another branch of the army.  You and Lucifer turned on each other, Raphael’s lost his mind-”

“And you ran away,” Michael points out gently.

“I gave the three of you everything I had,” Gabriel manages, throat tight and fighting against the words, against all the phantom pain he thought he’d managed to escape.  “Especially you, Michael.  And you were the one who threw it all away.”

“Gabriel,” Michael says, and Gabriel feels like he can hear his brother’s grace split open from his words, his voice raw and miserable.

“I trusted you with so many things,” Gabriel says, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth.  He can’t say that he trusted Michael to keep his heart safe, to keep him safe, not only because that kind of statement sounds cliché and pathetic, but also because he feels foolish for it now, having been caught up in some youthful fantasy of devotion and sincerity.  “Michael, you just… you fucked everything over.”

“I did what I had to do,” Michael repeats, and Gabriel doesn’t know how many times he’s heard that stupid phrase fall from the older archangel’s lips, but he hates it every time.

“According to who?” Gabriel demands.

Michael looks physically ill now, and his voice breaks when he says, “According to our father.”

Gabriel tries to laugh in his face, but it comes out as an angry huff.  “You and Lucifer are so alike, you know that?” he growls, trying unsuccessfully to shove away from Michael’s grip on his arms.  He is too weak to fight him – always has been – and Michael’s hand stays locked around his forearm.  “You’re both selfish pieces of shit.”

“I did what I did because I was commanded to do it!”

“No, Michael!  You did it for yourself!” the younger archangel snaps.  “You were so caught up in being daddy’s perfect little angel that Dad could have told you to bash my head in yourself, and you would have skipped off to do it!”

“Gabriel, I never could have-”

“Don’t say that!” Gabriel shouts, his voice shaking the walls.  It’s the unspoken doubt that has always hovered in his mind, the idea that it could have just as easily been him thrown into Hell for eternity by the very brother he cherished the most.  Michael doesn’t speak and the silence is so long and lonely that Gabriel feels his throat tighten, feels the beginnings of the mourning he’s tried to avoid.

“I know what you think, little brother,” Michael says, his voice softer and his eyes so imploring that Gabriel can’t look away.  When the older archangel’s hands come up to cup his face, Gabriel finally sobs, crumbling against him.  Michael hushes him with gentle caresses to his cheeks and a soft voice in his ear, but Gabriel still shakes.

“I know what you think,” Michael repeats, moving his arms around his brother to rock him gently.  “But I never could have hurt you.  I would have locked myself in the cage before that.”  Gabriel pushes at him, but he holds tightly again, shaking his head.  “I’m so sorry.  I am.  If Lucifer had been ordered to hurt you, I can’t say I wouldn’t have abandoned Heaven.”

“You’re full of shit,” Gabriel snaps through his tears.  “Just shut up, Michael.  Shut up.”

Michael moves and places his hands on Gabriel’s shoulders, pulling him forward so Michael can slip into the bed behind him.  Gabriel shouldn’t let him because the last thing he should want to do is cuddle with this creature who once ripped his heart out of his chest and stomped all over it, but when Michael’s arms wind around him, he clutches at them desperately.  Michael’s hand is on his chin, turning his head, and then Michael’s lips cover his in a soft, chaste kiss.  Gabriel stills before returning the gesture, their lips moving slowly and minimally against one another’s.  It’s a perfect kiss because Michael’s perfect, always has been, and Gabriel has missed him so much that he finds his hand gripping John Winchester’s shirt, keeping Michael close even after they’ve parted.

“I loved you,” Gabriel murmurs, staring blankly ahead out into the darkness of the room.  “And you were so wrong.”

“I still love you,” Michael tells him, shattered by the idea that Gabriel truly hates him.

“I know,” Gabriel responds.  After a moment, he gives in and admits, “I do, too.  You dumbass.  As if I could just stop.”

Michael’s arms wrap around him more tightly and then Gabriel can see Michael’s wings, all six, luminously white and huge, the paradigm for the wings of every other angel.  They tuck around him, enveloping in grace.  Gabriel’s mind goes back to Heaven, then, to the times when he was young and Michael would tuck him under his wings for safekeeping, and also the times when he was old and they would lie wrapped up in each others’ wings for more intimate reasons.  Gabriel can’t push away the feeling of belonging and contentment that comes with that sight, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, and he gives in.

“I won’t watch you kill each other.  I’ll find another angel to run me through with their sword,” Gabriel promises without any fire, drained and limp against Michael chest.

“You won’t,” Michael tells him.  “You’ll live.  You’ll rule over heaven.  You’ll be better than the rest of us.”

Gabriel doesn’t have the strength to disagree, so he just turns his head and buries in his Michael’s neck, letting their graces tangle, warm and comfortable, and clings to the few moments he has left with his brother.

As Gabriel clings to him, Michael murmurs in his ear.  It’s mostly stories from their youth, soft whispers of their evenings spent lying together by God’s newly created rivers, of teaching Gabriel to fly, of sitting in the clouds and grooming each others’ feathers as they stared down in wonder at the beginnings of humanity.  Michael tells him secrets, all his hidden fears and desires, all the things that, as archangels, neither of them should be feeling.  He reminds Gabriel of the dinners that hadn’t dissolved into hostility, of the flights all four of them had taken together, of all the times Lucifer had teased Michael and Gabriel for their closeness.  He doesn’t talk about war because war is in the future, and Gabriel cannot be distracted from it anyway, even as he is reminded of happier times.  No matter how tightly he holds on to Michael, no matter how many kisses he places on his collarbone, no matter how he begs, Michael will tear away and do God’s will, just as he did so many centuries before.  Just as Gabriel flew to Earth, Michael will fly to Dean Winchester.  It is fate.  It’s inevitable.

Distantly, Gabriel finds it bitterly poignant that, this time, he will be the one left behind.